Rebuilding Hampton hopes to overcome smallest roster in PIHL

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Saturday, October 22, 2022 | 11:01 AM


The Hampton hockey team will be skating uphill this season.

With only 14 players, the Talbots have the thinnest roster in the 56-school PIHL under first-year coach Buck McKee.

But the Talbots have shown no quit in the early going of the 20-game season. After being routed by Indiana, 9-0, on Oct. 3 in the opener, they were tied with Fox Chapel midway through the second period in an eventual 8-4 loss Oct. 13.

“I haven’t heard one complaint from our players,” McKee said. “When asked to go over the boards, they go over and they give us their best every time.”

Hampton, which competes in the PIHL Class A Blue Division, had 18 players last season and 24 as recently as four years ago. By comparison, division foe North Catholic has 30 players on its roster. Class A teams Fox Chapel and Shaler have 24. No other PIHL team at any level lists fewer than 17 players.

“Our biggest challenge right now is the small roster,” McKee said. “Having 13 skaters, it’s really hard to put out combinations and stay competitive when another team is rolling four lines at you. … I’m constantly double-shifting kids. They are human, and they wear down.”

McKee, 46, replaced Luke Leya, who stepped down after going 24-49 in four seasons, including 7-13 last year. McKee, a former coach in the Butler Valley Dawgs club program, is joined on the staff by assistant Dave Wagner, a Fox Chapel graduate and coach with the Steel City Ice Renegades travel program.

“(Teams) are not going to just walk over us,” Wagner said. “These kids are motivated. There was a lot of talk about next year. We’re going to compete now. We have seniors, and we are not going to write off their season. We are going to try our best and do our best.”

Senior defenseman Cody Bianco and junior forwards Sean Sullivan and James Elk are the top returning players for the Talbots, who play home games at Frozen Pond Arena in Valencia, Butler County.

Bianco (4 goals, 10 assists) was named a PIHL All-Star last season after totaling 14 points. Sullivan, who played on the Renegades team that won a 2022 USA Hockey 16U national championship in April, scored 13 goals last season, the most of any returning player, and Elk led the team with 14 assists.

“It’s hard,” Sullivan said of the team’s lack of depth. “It takes a toll on you. But we have a lot of energy. We have to since we don’t have as many players.”

Other top skaters are seniors Isaak Zech and Erica Gynn, junior Andrew Bagnato, all defensemen, and junior Joey Vinciguerra, who did not play last season.

Newcomers are junior wing Nate Sanders and sophomores Mason Vinciguerra, expected to return soon from a shoulder injury, and Sam Modlin.

A trio of freshmen forwards — Brayden Bianco, Eli Bukovac and Eli Schwarzbach — will be counted on to contribute.

Junior Nathan Dembowski, the only goalie on the roster, will start in net after serving as a reserve for the past two seasons. He faced 50 shots against Indiana and 58 against Fox Chapel.

“Goaltender is going to be pretty solid this year,” Wagner said, “as long as we can keep the shots down.”

The Talbots are without Danny Venture, who was second on the team last season with 15 goals and 13 assists. He transferred to Westminster School in Simsbury, Conn., for his senior year.

“We’ve just got to win as many games as possible,” said Sullivan, who scored twice in the Fox Chapel loss. “We’re not a top team yet because we are kind of rebuilding. But we’ve just got to stay positive.”

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